Trail of the unexpected: Mustafapasa

A remote town in Cappadocia hides its history behind ruined façades.

Lucy Winstanley
Saturday 11 September 2010 00:00
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Sunshine streams through the entrance of the cave, its white fingers reaching across the softly worn ground towards the deeper recesses. As my eyes adjust to the black interior, a rough-hewn chancel emerges from the darkness; behind that, I can make out the stone slab of a small oblong altar. The cool air settles on my scorched skin like balm – welcome respite from the fiery heat that envelops the valley outside.

This is one of a number of chapels that have been painstakingly carved into the steep rock face of the Gomede valley, just west of the small town of Mustafapasa in Cappadocia. Looking back at the fissure through which I have just entered, a staggeringly beautiful panorama is framed against the crumbling walls. A vast ochre-and-white-striped ridge snakes through the dry plains like a huge stone wave – but one topped with looming, stratified monoliths. The result of thousands of years of wind and rain erosion, the startling rock formations and magical "fairy chimneys" of Cappadocia, in South Central Anatolia, make for a spectacular landscape.

At the heart of the region, the ancient centres of Uchisar, Goreme and Urgup form a much-visited nucleus that offers richly decorated Byzantine churches and wild, untamed scenery to tourists drawn from Turkey's shimmering coastline to its wilder central regions. Lying just outside this cultural triangle, to the south, is Mustafapasa.

A combination of bad transport links to nearby towns and a lack of varied accommodation means it is a quiet place, where some tour buses pause for only an hour or so midway through lengthier itineraries.

Almost all the towns and villages in the area are built – or rather burrowed – to the same architectural blueprint: hollowed-out dwellings, scooped directly from the soft volcanic tuff. Home to numerous civilisations over the centuries (the Assyrian, Hittite, Roman and Byzantine empires are some of the cultures that have occupied the area), these small outposts are the result of a complex and interminable mingling of influences.

Mustafapasa is no different, except in this town the warrens of grottos are hidden behind statuesque neo-classical façades. Unmistakably Hellenic in style, the town is celebrated throughout the region for the ornate carved stonework of these beautiful houses. On some, a date or name has been embroidered into the decorative stonework in Greek letters; subtle clues that allude to the thriving Greek Orthodox community of wealthy merchants who settled in the town in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

The tour groups that whizz through the town invariably pause to take snapshots of Mustafapasa's magnificent Greek houses. In a landscape where many villages seem to evanesce into the amber cliffs at a distance, retreating into the dramatic rock formations until only the hollowed mouths of windows and doors remain, such calculated ornamentation is an arresting sight.

However, moving past the relative bustle of the town square, it becomes clear that very few of these old Greek houses are occupied. The vast majority have been left to the mercy of the weather for decades. Doors hang off their hinges, revealing vacant interiors devoid of life, bar the stray cats that wander freely through the barren rooms and open staircases.

The hotel my husband and I stayed in was similarly inscrutable. A rambling sandy-coloured maze of a place, the Monastery Cave Hotel's smooth exterior belies a multilayered labyrinth of sunny terraces and small cave rooms. Until recently, these atmospheric rooms were used as monks' cells and the corridor walls are peppered with shallow coves blackened by candle flame.

When I asked Ercan, our host, why so many of the houses were empty, he relayed the sad history of the town with the rapid fluency of someone who has spent a long time honing his speech. He told us said that the houses have stood empty since 1923, when the forced population exchange between Greece and the newly independent Turkey saw the expulsion of religious minority populations. Turkish-speaking Christians who had settled in Turkey for generations were deported in their thousands, irrevocably altering the cultural demography of Kemal Ataturk's nascent nation.

Back then, Mustafapasa was known as Sinasos ("city of the sun") and was home to more than 8,000 Greek Orthodox Turkish nationals, who had lived peacefully alongside their Muslim neighbours for generations. The incoming residents – Muslim families from the Baltic states – numbered far less than the out-going Greeks and chose not to occupy the most imposing of the newly vacated houses. The population has since dwindled to 1,500 and the town now contains an array of beautiful, ramshackle shells that retain an air of faded grandeur, despite their decrepit state.

Elsewhere, the minaret of a 17th-century Seljuk mosque looms over one of the town's two squares, while later attractions, including the Ottoman-era Sakir Pasa Medrese (university college) and the impressive late 19th-century Church of Constantine and Helen, are both located prominently in the centre of town.

The churches of the Gomede valley are harder to date, and may well have been carved by early Christians who flocked to the sanctuary of Cappadocia's hills between the first and 11th centuries. Their atrophied remains are a sombre reminder of Mustafapasa's place in Turkish history.

Travel essentials: Mustafapasa

Getting there

* The gateway to Cappadocia is Kayseri airport, served via Istanbul by Turkish Airlines (020-7471 6666; turkishairlines.com) from Heathrow, Stansted, Birmingham and Manchester; and Pegasus Airlines (0845 084 8980; flypgs.com) from Stansted.

Staying there

* Monastery Cave Hotel, Mustafapasa, Urgup, Nevsehir, Turkey (00 90 384 353 5005; hotelmonastery. com). Doubles start at €15, room only.

More information

* Turkish Tourism Office: 020-7839 7778; gototurkey.co.uk.

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